Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The central lies of the Musk Persona 2.0

[updated with a final twee from Josh Marshall.]

Isaacson is the definitive Musk biographer, and I don't mean that in a good way. He buys into the myth even more deeply than Vance (who, as much as I hate to say it, looks considerably better in comparison). Of course, a lot has happened in the eight years that separate the two books. In 2015, Musk could be seen in a purely noble light. That was also the year he had a cameo as himself in the Big Bang Theory volunteering anonymously in a soup kitchen, which would probably be a difficult scene to pull off today.

Even as late as two years ago, he could still get press like this (though it should be noted, Time was badly behind the, for lack of a better word, times with this. Most of the press started to wise up around 2019.).

In 2021, Elon Musk became the world’s richest man (no woman came close), and Time named him Person of the Year: “This is the man who aspires to save our planet and get us a new one to inhabit: clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad; a madcap hybrid of Thomas Edison, P. T. Barnum, Andrew Carnegie and Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, the brooding, blue-skinned man-god who invents electric cars and moves to Mars.” 


“He dreams of Mars as he bestrides Earth, square-jawed and indomitable,” the magazine’s Person of the Year announcement read.


These days we all know far more about Musk, most of it bad, and all of the other bad stuff, which some of us have been calling out for years, is finally making its way into the discourse. Unless you're writing for a fan boy audience, you can't depict Musk as a purely noble figure; the best you can get away with is the old great but flawed line.

The greatness part of the story rests on two pillars: first, believing Musk has done or is about to do all the things he claims, keeping in mind that he has no background in or aptitude for engineering (when he goes off script, the result is always painful to listen to).

[So Anne Milling and Elon Musk have something in common.]

The second pillar is believing him when he talks about his motives. The NYT's credulous review by Jennifer Szalai has an unintentionally informative example. (If you're looking for something insightful, check out Jill Lepore in the New Yorker or Brian Merchant in the LA Times,) Emphasis added.

Yet even as Musk struggles to relate to the actual humans around him, his plans for humanity are grand. “A fully reusable rocket is the difference between being a single-planet civilization and being a multiplanet one”: Musk would “maniacally” repeat this message to his staff at SpaceX, his spacecraft and satellite company, where every decision is motivated by his determination to get earthlings to Mars. He pushes employees at his companies — he now runs six, including X, the platform formerly known as Twitter — to slash costs and meet brutal deadlines because he needs to pour resources into the moonshot of colonizing space “before civilization crumbles.” Disaster could come from climate change, from declining birthrates,* from artificial intelligence. Isaacson describes Musk stalking the factory floor of Tesla, his electric car company, issuing orders on the fly. “If I don’t make decisions,” Musk explained, “we die.”

This is not just wrong, it's the opposite of right. Musk has used  SpaceX money, personnel, and brand to supports his other companies. The example of Twitter is particularly absurd. He actually borrowed a billion from SpaceX to help fund the $44 billion vanity purchase, money that could great things -- funding R&D, engineering scholarships, STEM programs -- to advance manned spaceflight. 

He could even have funded multiple exploratory rovers to Mars to lay the foundation for the missions he promised were supposed to happen years ago. That's the dirty little secret of his plans for a multiplanetary future. Other than pouring money into developing rockets mainly suitable for low earth orbit missions, neither Musk nor SpaceX have done any of the exploratory work or developed any of the necessary technology for a mission to Mars, despite all the promises.

Musk is a narcissistic fabulist. He has a burning desire to be seen as a savior, but little interest in actually saving anyone. Whenever there's a crisis in the news, he will call a press conference to announce that he's going to deliver water to Flint, minisubs to Thailand, respirators to ICUs. Little or nothing usually follows. You'll notice that his initial account of cutting off Starlink in Crimea was framed as his protecting us from nuclear war.  His promises of saving humanity are just more of the same.

As mentioned earlier, Lepore's piece is really worth a look.

Here's a good discussion of the security issues around Musk and SpaceX from Robert Farley. 

One more for the road.

* Musk's concern over birthrates is for some strange reason limited to certain groups. You can take the boy out of South Africa...

1 comment:

  1. A few years ago I had an exchange with a savvy journalist who pushed back against my Musk-skepticism. This was before all the political stuff, so his Musk-optimism didn't have to do with political conservatism. Rather, I think the journalist (not someone on the tech electric-car beat) was positively disposed toward the storyline that Musk was a tech guy who actually built stuff. Kinda like a Steve Jobs but more so: a hardware guy. This tapped into some mix of high-tech optimism and blue-collar-manufacturing nostalgia. I pointed to posts at your blog that linked to Musk-skeptical arguments, but the journalist wasn't interested, I think because he (the journalist) was relying on Tesla's financial success as a sort of fact-on-the-ground that was more convincing than theoretical arguments pro or con.